The Tao Of War


By Ralph D. Sawyer

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Wang Chen, a ninth-century military commander, was sickened by the carnage that had plagued the glorious T’ang dynasty for decades. “All within the seas were poisoned,” he wrote, “and pain and disaster was rife throughout the land.” Wang Chen wondered, how can we end conflicts before they begin? How can we explain and understand the dynamics of conflict? For the answer he turned to a remarkable source-the Tao Te Ching. Here is Wang Chen’s own rendering of and commentary on the ancient text, insightfully expanded and amplified by translator Ralph D. Sawyer, a leading scholar of Chinese military history. Although the Tao long influenced Chinese military doctrine, Wang Chen’s interpretations produced the first reading of it as a martial text-a “tao of war.” Like Sun-tzu’s Art of War, certainly the most famous study of strategy ever written, the Tao provides lessons for the struggles of contemporary life. In the way that the ancient Art of War provides inspiration and advice on how to succeed in competitive situations of all kinds, even in today’s world, Wang Chen’s The Tao of War uncovers action plans for managing conflict and promoting peace. A book to put on the shelf next to Art of War, Wang Chen’s The Tao of War is a reference of equally compelling and practical advice.


The Tao of War

Other Works by Ralph D. Sawyer
Published by Westview Press

Sun-tzu’s Art of War

The Complete Art of War

The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China

Sun Pin:
Military Methods

One Hundred Unorthodox Strategies:
Battle and Tactics of Chinese Warfare

The Tao of Spycraft:
Intelligence Theory and Practice
in Traditional China

FORTHCOMING FALL 2003 Fire and Water

The Tao of War

The Martial Tao Te Ching

Translated by

Ralph D. Sawyer with Mei-chün Lee Sawyer

To Nathan Sivin
            with profound appreciation for enlightenment
            and friendship over many decades


Since the Tao of War takes Wang Chen’s commentary as its focus and many readers are already familiar with one of the readily available Tao Te Ching translations, we did not intend to append our own version of this famous classic. However, studying Wang’s thoughts in detail convinced us that his understanding of the Tao Te Ching necessitates a contextually modified translation to prevent considerable puzzlement about his exact meaning. We therefore decided to commence each chapter with the relevant verses rendered in accord with his vision and orientation, as well as his particularized pronouncements.

In many instances the resulting translation differs somewhat from our basic inclinations. (Being a laconic and often enigmatic text, unless compelled to struggle with variant textual understandings and even mutually exclusive possibilities, one tends to read nebulously and unconsciously, somehow simultaneously absorbing the many implied and alternative meanings. However, definitive choices must be made in order to render problematic passages into English, thereby accounting for the significant variations in wording and style seen among contemporary versions.) Not only does Wang Chen sometimes choose unusual textual variants, but he occasionally diverges dramatically from one or another “accepted” understanding. At times his choices seem consciously intended to conform, if not contort, the text to his purposes and vision, but in fact many of them enjoy support from one or another antique commentary, as well as certain tomb text rearrangements. On reflection we found no instances in which his perspectives and interpretations were precluded.

Translations of the Tao Te Ching abound which might be consulted in conjunction with The Tao of War. The classic versions (with their accompanying introductions) by Arthur Waley (The Way And Its Power) and Wing-tsit Chan (The Way of Lao-tzu) still hold great appeal. Wing-tsit Chan also includes incisive textual notes and some brief commentaries, all of which were expanded upon in Ellen M. Chen’s focused version, The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary. John Wu’s Tao Te Ching is marked by a more political tone, one much closer to Wang Chen’s understanding. However, several relatively recent renditions also merit pondering, including D.C. Lau’s hybrid Tao Te Ching, Robert G. Henrick’s Lao-tzu Te-Tao Ching, Victor Mair’s Tao Te Ching, and Stephen Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching. Comprehensive studies continue to appear, such as Michael LaFargue, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching, and Livia Kohn and Michael La- Fargue, Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching; the discovery of Han dynasty tomb texts has stimulated numerous conferences and a much revised view of the text’s historical evolution; and the pioneering work of Bruce and Taeko Brooks compels radical reinterpretation.

Wang Chen’s text may be found in the great compilation of Taoist writings known as the Tao Tsang, the major collected editions, and even the recently published Chung-kuo Ping-shu Chi-ch’eng. Textual variations among the accessible editions are surprisingly few, easily emended wherever obviously corrupt or erroneous. (Although we have assiduously researched the text and pondered the translation and commentaries for some two years, the final work, being intended for readers with diverse interests and orientations rather than solely sinologists, has been spared the usual philological footnotes.) While it is uncertain which Tao Te Ching edition Wang Chen primarily employed — he clearly chose among variants in a number of cases — his comments suggest he was aware of Wang Pi’s version but normally gave preference to Ho-shang Kung’s. From his line by line notes, chapter arrangement, and chapter titles, he doubtlessly collated his comments to an eighty-one chapter version similar to the many presently available.

Thanks are due to Lee T’ing-rong for honoring the work with his calligraphy; to Max Gartenberg for his wise counsel over the years; and to our Saint Bernard, Zeno, for illuminating certain aspects of the Tao Te Ching.

Ralph D. Sawyer



Stirred by the many sorrows warfare had inflicted upon China over the preceding two thousand years, the T’ang dynasty border commander Wang Chen pensively observed:

The armies of the Three Kings all acted in accord with the requirements of the moment. When their efforts were complete, they desisted. After standing down, their armies were not again employed. Yet some of their later descendants were arrogant, uncouth, brutal, dissolute, angry, greedy, boastful, or evil, so they created personal armies, regiments, states, and families. When they acted, it was to seize the strong; when they employed their armies, they sought victory. Even though their troops became weary and their provisions were exhausted, they still advanced and fought. Some did not desist and were engulfed; some were never satisfied and brought extermination upon themselves, exposing the people’s livers and brains on the road. Because of a single man’s anger or desire, all within the seas were poisoned and in pain, and disaster was rife throughout the land.

His words, universal in their depiction, could well have been written in any postwar period, in any age or country, East or West, including this very day.

Perturbed by the carnage that had again plagued even the glorious T’ang dynasty in the preceding eighth century, Wang Chen sought a solution that would end warfare and eliminate the horrendous destruction it wrought. Although ostensibly a Confucian, he found the means to rectify humanity’s self-destructive tendencies in the doctrines of the Tao Te Ching, a brief, already ancient philosophical work that had, at least in part, provided the initial intellectual inspiration for what evolved into the various forms of Taoism over the centuries from the late Warring States period (403–221 BCE) onward. The choice must be considered astonishing, not only because there were well-established, alternative possibilities—Confucianism and Buddhism—with strongly grounded theories of human nature and conflict, but also because prevailing interpretations of the Tao Te Ching had come to emphasize its mystical and even nihilistic aspects. However, the text must have appealed to Wang Chen because it provided a cosmological anchor for the patterns of human society and a transcendent explanation for the psychodynamics of conflict and contention, whose eradication had to be thorough to prove successful.

In the quest for a method to end warfare and coerce peace amid a world of selfish interests and conflicting desires, Wang Chen’s treatise constitutes a striking, worldly meditation upon the patterns and principles of the Tao Te Ching. It therefore also offers a highly nontraditional interpretation of the text itself (although growing evidence shows that at least some schools of thought understood the Tao Te Ching as a political, rather than purely individualist, writing). Wang clearly inclined to true pacifism but found its solution of deference and humility, of simply refusing to engage in combat and warfare, inadequate when confronted by great evil, by the extinction of one’s family and the extermination of the state. He read the Tao Te Ching closely for solutions and thoroughly embraced its concepts and ideas, but not without probing them within the context of a bureaucratized world of competing views and incessant bickering. Obviously struggling with the contradictions found within life and the Tao Te Ching itself, his commentaries sometimes vacillate between pure noncontention and a modified position of deference through power, as well as undertaking inactivity or actionless measures that participate in cosmic patterns and therefore entail no repercussions.

Little being known about the author of the extensive Tao Te Ching commentaries that comprise Essential Explanations of the Tao Te Ching’s Martial Discussions, herein titled the Tao of War, context must be sought in the wider history of the T’ang dynasty. From the date of 809 CE appended to his overview, it can be concluded that Wang Chen lived in the second half of the T’ang dynasty, an era when its initial glory had already declined under weak emperors who often immersed themselves in Taoist studies rather than exercise control of the government. Moreover, the empire had sustained an enormous blow from An Lu-shan’s violent rebellion, which had virtually torn the state asunder and caused the death of millions over nearly a decade, commencing in 755 CE. Although central government control had been restored by the time of Wang’s writing a half century later, unrest still continued even then: in more remote areas, recalcitrant military leaders retained substantially independent power, and in the border region, various steppe peoples, termed “barbarians” by the imperial government (in comparison with China’s vaunted civilization and culture), constantly posed threats and mounted incursions. Wang Chen’s own words show he personally witnessed the turmoil and travail in these remote areas, having been posted there in a subordinate military capacity during his career as a central government bureaucrat.

By the T’ang dynasty, whose founders have traditionally been viewed as semibarbarians themselves, essentially Confucian views had come to characterize state orthodoxy. Actual administrative practice, however, was a complex matter: imperial attitudes and policies fluctuated between activist intervention marked by caustic “realist” or “Legalist” practices and deliberate Taoist quietism, whose inactivity verged on a power vacuum. Although other avenues were available, Wang Chen would presumably have pursued his career as a bureaucrat by passing at least one or two government examinations and gradually being advanced through a series of general posts, coming at some point to be appointed an imperial censor (or inspector) charged with scrutinizing behavior in a designated provincial area. In this capacity, he was eventually assigned command responsibilities, suggesting he either had some background in military studies or subsequently came to know the military writings in the course of his duties. However, since his commentaries rarely quote the military classics but do cite passages from the Confucian canon, he may well have been entrusted with command without any martial expertise. This could account for his lack of interest in the Tao Te Ching’s intriguing tactical concepts and unorthodox military principles.

His years of service on the border just when the central government was once again building strong armies and wresting back full control of the peripheral regions apparently impressed Wang Chen with the horrors of warfare firsthand. Certainly this experience was far more intense than any he was likely to have experienced in his childhood years, when he may have encountered remnants of the general suffering resulting from An Lu-shan’s rebellion. Apparently these sorrows prompted him to envision a realistic program for reducing conflict and ending warfare in the Tao Te Ching, whose text was much favored by the avowedly Taoist T’ang dynasty. This provided Wang with a ready, acceptable justification for his ideas, as did the fact that the T’ang dynasty had also established China’s first semilegendary strategist, the T’ai Kung of early Chou fame, as its revered, state-sanctioned martial patron, in conjunction with Confucius as its cultural patron. His afterword, here somewhat abridged by deleting much honorific language of little interest, briefly discusses his motives and rationale:

I have heard that in antiquity, after Pao Hsi had completed Heaven and Earth and created patterns for the myriad things, he still felt that the August Tao was insufficient. Accordingly, he silently pondered the transformations, his vital essence moved to penetration and, without having spoken, Heaven began giving birth, without having spoken, Earth began nurturing. Therefore the Ho River gave forth the Dragon Diagram and the Luo River spewed forth the Turtle Books in order to display their writings. From these they were able to draw the hexagrams and images [of the 1 Ching], and govern written characters.

When the sprouts of wisdom and intelligence emerged, true simplicity submersively diminished, so the principles of these writings again became insufficient. Therefore was born our Emperor of the Dank Mysterious Origination, Lao-tzu, to speak for Heaven and Earth and excel in rescuing the distressed. For this reason, the sections comprised by his five thousand characters again and again express his earnestness and sincerity. They can be said to open the root and source of Tao and Te [Virtue], and reject the leaves and branches of language. Compared to essays, they are like the sun, moon, and stars shining in their revolutions in the Heavens; compared with the animals and plants, they are like the myriad things that fill up the Earth. If we speak about their instructions and admonitions, all behavior is completely prepared for men.

Now the civil rules the martial, while the martial prepares for the civil. These two handles must be implemented together. They come out together and always occupy the left and right [sides in court], so who can abandon them? Thus [in the Ssu-ma Fa] it is said, “One who forgets warfare will be endangered, one who is enthralled with warfare will perish.” From this one knows that armies can be employed, but cannot be loved. They can engage in combat, but cannot be forgotten. From the time the Yellow Emperor repressed the chaos brought about by Shao Hao, no age has lacked them. When the Three Kings flourished, even though they all possessed Sagacious Virtue, they still settled the realm with weapons. However, the armies of the Three Kings all acted in accord with the requirements of the moment. When their efforts were complete, they desisted. After standing down, their armies were not again employed. Yet, some of their later descendants were arrogant, uncouth, brutal, dissolute, angry, greedy, boastful, or evil, so they created personal armies, regiments, states, and families. When they acted it was to seize the strong; when they employed their armies, they sought victory. Even though their troops became weary and their provisions were exhausted, they still advanced and fought. Some did not desist and were engulfed, some were never satisfied and brought extermination upon themselves, exposing the people’s livers and brains on the road. Because of a single man’s anger or desire, all within the seas were poisoned and in pain and disaster was rife throughout the land. Lao-tzu felt grief over the situation, but rulers still could not abandon military forces, having no alternative but to employ them.

Now Sages do not employ the military out of indignation or anger, to fight to seize terrain, from greed or love, or to avenge enmity. They order and discipline their troops, nurture and store them, in order to be prepared against evil and overawe the unwise. They do not employ them in battlefield deployments, nor use them in aggressive attacks, nor for hunting in the wilds, nor for great strength. This is the profound principle of the Sage’s employment of the military.

Furthermore, anger is a contrary Virtue, weapons are baleful implements, and combat is strongly abhorred by all men. How can it be easy to employ baleful implements through contrary Virtue and thereby undertake what people strongly abhor? Thus, it is said, “All under Heaven will give their allegiance to one of superior Virtue; all within the four seas will give their allegiance to one of superior benevolence; an entire state will give their allegiance to one of superior righteousness; and a village will give their allegiance to one who esteems the rites. No man will give his allegiance to one who lacks these four virtues.” When men do not give their allegiance, rulers then employ the military. Employing the army being the way to endangerment, it is therefore said to be “a baleful implement.” Moreover, battlegrounds are termed “fatal terrain” [“ground of death”]. Therefore, kings must first concentrate upon Tao and Te [Virtue] and take the employment of the military very seriously.

I have also heard it said that rulers who establish dynasties are fervent in completing their achievements, whereas those who succeed them merely preserve them, holding on to their positions. Therefore, when the Sage takes what is necessary to be unnecessary, his armies and weapons can be disbanded. However, when ordinary men take the unnecessary to be necessary, combat and aggression will increasingly flourish. Thus, Lao-tzu was not simply satirizing the dukes and kings of his age but probably also cautioning rulers of later ages against lightly employing their armies. For this reason, he specially established these five thousand characters and first raised the essentials of Great Tao, Highest Te, self-cultivation, patterning the state, actionless affairs, and unspoken teachings, only after several tens of chapters beginning to truly speak about the military’s origins. Amid his deep sincerity and subtle instructions, there isn’t a chapter that does not entail some concept of the military. How is this? Probably because when rulers marked by the Tao came down to the end of the Shang dynasty, campaigns of aggression came to be mounted by the feudal lords. By Lao-tzu’s time, kings had long lost the masses and correct Tao. However, he could not directly upbraid them, so he fervently discussed the Tao of soaring vacuity and noncontention and the Virtue of pliancy and weakness, of being humble, in order to admonish them.

Now contention is the source of military combat, the foundation of disaster and chaos. The Sage wants to restrain it at its source and sever its foundation; therefore, throughout the Tao Te Ching, from beginning to end, Lao-tzu repeatedly takes noncontention as the essence. When no one contends, how will weapons and armor arise? For what purpose will forces be deployed for combat? Therefore, Lao-tzu repeated this over and over. How sincere his instructions, how sincere his instructions!


In the traditional form already defined by the T’ang dynasty, the Tao Te Ching consisted of two parts, whose very titles reflect their thematic focus; the thirty-seven chapters of the Tao Ching, or Classic of the Tao, and the remaining forty-four of the Te Ching, or Classic of Te. The Tao Ching tends to ponder issues from a cosmological and metaphysical perspective, anchoring its observations and implications for humanity in the Tao’s ineffable pervasiveness throughout the phenomenal universe. The Te Ching, in contrast, is more oriented to questions and practices of government, emphasizing modes of action within the mundane realm, resolving the problems besetting society. The recent discovery of tomb texts with the traditional order reversed and minor variations in the wording and arrangement of some verses, as well as variant editions compiled by different commentators that have come down through the years, provides evidence that the Tao Te Ching’s basic format and contents were finalized by the Han dynasty. The tomb texts are inherently interesting and apparently suggest that the Tao Te Ching was originally conceived, at least by some interpretive schools, as a political text rather than the Taoist voyage of self-cultivation and metaphysical discovery it has long been considered. For our purposes, however, the book’s interpretation is defined by Wang Chen’s version, structured and informed solely by his understanding.

Scholarly opinion on the nature of the Tao Te Ching, its compilation process, and its probable composition date— presumably the fourth to third centuries BCE, during the Warring States period—differs significantly and vociferously. Despite its traditional attribution to the legendary Lao-tzu, who at best may have provided inspiration and some core material, it does not seem to stem from a single mind. Instead, it appears to be a much reworked and synthesized contemplation of various threads and contributions from several authors that achieves a defined but not entirely homogeneous perspective. Although several distinct voices are melded and incorporated into the Tao Te Ching, those voices are not totally integrated, with some remaining dramatically contradictory. Whether the resulting conceptual conflicts can be resolved by some greater vision or subsumed in some surpassing transpersonal power, concept, or entity that perhaps pervades the universe depends upon one’s assumptions and perspective. Even Wang Chen, who undertakes a consistent, envisioned reading of the text, at times seems to simply ignore or obscure difficulties. In most cases, though, his enthusiasm allows a cogent interpretation advocating the actionless course of virtue that leads to his ultimate objective of eliminating conflict. In addition, many difficulties easily dissolve in a maze of “chain arguments” whereby the reader is enticed through a sequence of conditions, each of which is presented as a highly plausible, if not necessary, consequence of the preceding situation. Since movement from premise to apparent conclusion is normally bereft of delimiting conditions and constraints, in an extreme case black can even be convincingly transformed into white. Moreover, the Tao Te Ching’s particularistic nature tends to elicit focused comments defined solely by each chapter’s unique concerns, with little or no reference to the greater text. Discrete but divergent views may therefore be enthusiastically espoused by the Tao Te Ching and promoted by Wang Chen without ever being perceived or pondered as contradictory.

Even though he often comments upon fundamentally metaphysical issues, for Wang Chen the Tao Te Ching is not an ethereal, nihilistic, contemplative work. Rather, it is an exposition of the Tao’s universal forces that provides a guide to resolving the horrendous problems plaguing humanity: greed, desire, militarism, and especially warfare. Moreover, he does not view it as a work intended for the weak and powerless or for recluses fearful of sullying themselves with the world’s affairs. He clearly regards it as being for rulers (honored with the rubric of “Sages”) acting from a position of power whose fundamental concerns include the people’s welfare and loss of their own positions. (As will be seen, humility and pliancy prove ideal redresses for power but simply doom the inherently weak to extinction.) For example, key verses of the chapter entitled “Know the Masculine” obviously speak to individuals in positions of ultimate temporal power:

Know the masculine, cleave to the feminine,
Be a watery ravine to All under Heaven.
By acting as a watery ravine to All under Heaven,
Eternal Virtue will never be estranged,
And you will revert back to being a child.
Know the white, cleave to the black,
Be a model for All under Heaven.
By acting as a model for All under Heaven,
Eternal Virtue will never err,
And you will revert back to the unbounded.
Know glory, cleave to disgrace,
Be a valley to All under Heaven.


On Sale
Apr 29, 2009
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Ralph D. Sawyer

About the Author

Ralph D. Sawyer, one of America’s leading scholars in Chinese warfare, has worked extensively with major intelligence and defense agencies. After studying at MIT and Harvard and a brief stint of university teaching, Sawyer has spent the past thirty years lecturing and doing international consulting work focused on China.

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